[V:tM] On SPC Design in V5

The following process is an attempt to patch over one of the most glaring omissions from the V5 book: designing a Storyteller Played Character that operates within a fairly comprehensive sense of “the rules.” At the end of the day the Storyteller is a player too, albeit one with a different set of responsibilities: that’s why I don’t like to call them VtM NPCs, and why I like to have my SPCs operate on the same plane as the players’ characters have to, even if they have a lot of advantages.

(For visual handholds, and because I forgot I had them: a few images of my extended STPC family, as drawn by a Discord buddy I’m afraid I lost touch with. hubris, if you’re out there, thanks a lot for these, they still make me smile!)

Sorcha: a Gifted Fledgling,
do not underestimate her,
but do not estimate her too highly either.

How to build an SPC

Start with a Mortal template from page 185, depending on how strong you want the character to be. Careful observation reveals that a Gifted template is roughly equivalent to a fledgling PC: their Attributes won’t be as strong but their Skills will be more developed. Deadly is super strong and should be reserved for the biggest and baddest dudes around; even my STPC isn’t Deadly! Weak is absolutely feeble in vampire terms and should be reserved for characters whose dramatic role is tied up with failure.

If you’re struggling to pick their Skills, assign them a Profession (page 145), a Life Event for each century they’ve been around (page 146) and four or so Pastimes (page 146 again).

Also, look ahead to their Disciplines and Predator Type and make sure they’re appropriately kitted out with the Skills listed there. They don’t have to be good – you might design an SPC to be crap – but consider that three dots is “trained and practising to professional standard” and that an experienced Kindred is probably at that standard in what they need to get by night to night.

If the same Skill comes up twice, assign a Speciality to it.

Any leftovers get put into the Skills that are important for your chronicle’s style. Mine tend to be Insight, Awareness, Streetwise, Subterfuge and Athletics, because I run a chronicle that’s about second-guessing the motives of others and rolling with a surprise fight when it happens. Your mileage may vary.

Take all the Flaws from the Mortal Template, as this gives your SPC some weird weaknesses that diligent players can uncover and exploit. (I’m a big fan of Folkloric Banes and Blocks on my elders, for instance.) I think this is an important part of Vampire – the more old and powerful a Kindred is, the more they need a few specific eccentricities and vulnerabilities. It makes them feel more inhuman, and it gives the PCs a fighting chance.

Then add the following vampire mechanics, including all the extra Specialities and Backgrounds from their Predator Type. (I like to give SPCs both of the either/or Specialities to represent them having some different developed strategies for feeding. If they’re total babies with no idea, they might not get a Predator Type at all. Thinbloods don’t get any of this stuff at all.)

Fledgling

■ ■ 1 Blood Potency, Humanity 7
■ ■ Disciplines: Clan (2, 1), Predator Type (+1 from one)

Neonate

■ ■ 2 Blood Potency, Humanity 6
■ ■ Disciplines: Clan (2, 1), Predator Type (+1 in both), +1 anywhere

Ancilla

■ ■ 3 Blood Potency, Humanity 5
■ ■ Disciplines: Clan (3, 2, 1) Predator Type (+ 1 in both), +2 anywhere

Elder

■ ■ 4 Blood Potency, Humanity 4
■ ■ Disciplines: Clan (4, 3, 2) Predator Type (+1 in both), +3 anywhere

Adjust all this by Predator Type as normal, so a really scary elder might get Blood Leech (for Blood Potency 5 Humanity 3) or a particularly kindly ancilla might take Consensualist (for Humanity 7, probably a better person than the PCs).

Next, give your SPCs a Coterie Type. You might want to have a group of them working together (if they’re meant to be lowkey rivals who are on the PCs’ level) or maybe assign all those Backgrounds to one more senior figure and assume they have some lesser Kindred operating the machine behind their back (Weak or Average builds).

I do this so I can quantify exactly what resources my SPCs has to call on outside of direct confrontation. The PCs don’t necessarily get a fair fight but they do get one that exists and operates in the same systemic terms as their abilities, rather than me just going “oh yeah the prince can do that because they’re prince”. I often use the Background ratings of the SPCs to set the Difficulty of conflicts with them, and of course SPC Backgrounds make great targets for PC Projects if you’re using that subsystem.

Alistair: if I’d known how much the players would love him,
I’d have made him Deadly,
just to nail the sheer badassery they think he has.

You can do a lot of odd things with this template. I set up a Weak Ancilla as the first primogen my current crop of Anarch players took down: he was out of his depth, after his time and generally the weakest link in the Camarilla’s chain. Their Mawla, meanwhile, is a Gifted Neonate: he’s only been undead thirty years, but he had a long and hard life as a ghoul before then and he has a lot of tricks up his sleeve. I will say that I’m not sure how to make sense out of a Deadly Fledgling or Weak Elder, though…

How to tune your SPCs for conflict

So far, so good, but there is (as I discovered) a world of difference between building an SPC who works on paper and building one who can actually stand up to a group of PCs and make their players feel a bit sweaty. Midway through the Wild Roses chronicle (at the end of Act One, which was about twice the length of the others), I actually had to redraw my entire SPC roster because I’d dramatically underestimated what they needed to accomplish.

The main thing to think about is action economy. Your SPC gets to do one thing in a round, the PCs get to do one each.

Obviously the easiest way around this is to bring minions via the Background dots. Retainers and Allies have mechanical details already, as does the Haven: Watchmen perk (most of my SPCs have this one), but if you really want to crank the odds against your PCs, build an SPC with a big Herd and lean into the “perform basic services” aspect. When push comes to shove, a Herd can put a lot of bodies into play and enough Weak dice pools can overwhelm any PC, one bare-minimum point of damage at a time. Ask the Roses how unnerving it was to set up and bushwhack a Toreador ancilla only to discover he’d turned up with thirty men against the four of them and a pig.

For an SPC to feel powerful one-on-one they have to build dice pools big enough that they can afford to split them between players if they need to. Pick up extra dice from Specialities (don’t be afraid to give an SPC a signature weapon and corresponding speciality, that extra die goes a long way). Build bigger defensive pools with Celerity: Rapid Reflexes and Fleetness. And don’t be afraid to Blood Surge for more dice, especially since an SPC can and should be throwing around higher Blood Potency numbers than some playable neonate.

Santino, who has one dot in hoo, a whole bunch of useful Disciplines.
Oblivion’s Sight, Lethal Body and Daunt go a long way!

After that it’s a question of Disciplines and tactics. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it should give you some ideas to get started with. A lot of these ideas will involve going deep into one Discipline: the template I’ve shown above often gives them four or five dots in one place and I’m not afraid to use them.

  • stop themselves being attacked by throwing around a crowd control Discipline like Presence: Daunt, Dread Gaze or Majesty, or Potence: Earthshock, or the stealth hit of Fortitude: Flesh of Marble (not exactly crowd control, but serves the same purpose of keeping player attacks off your back). Oblivion, the way the Lasombra play it, is pretty good for incapacitating players, especially in social conflicts (stack Oblivion: Cloak of Shadows and Presence: Daunt for a Lasombra to whom no will not be said).
  • hit hard enough that they can Impair a player in one round and force someone to play defensively. Protean: Feral Claws or Potence: Prowess are good picks here, and once the SPC’s Hunger builds up a swift and brutal combat feeding with Potence: Brutal Feed can rip through a player’s health track. I used this with Celerity: Blink to create a three-round-kill sheriff who, alone, could incapacitate any one of my PCs.
  • facetank! Fortitude is a powerhouse of a Discipline for SPCs. Resilience, Toughness and Defy Bane will give your character a longer Health track, make it take longer to fill up, and manage the Aggravated damage that could incapacitate them quickly. Prowess from Pain bears special mention here as it puts more dice in the SPC’s pools and keeps them fighting for longer. Socially, Unswayable Mind and Fortify the Inner Facade keep the SPC ticking over nicely. And word must always go out to Defy Bane, which is perfect for extending a Conflict just that little bit longer without making it feel insurmountable.
  • bring some friends! Animalism is the classic Discipline for this one: bring a Famulus along, and either Unliving Hive or Enduring Beasts to keep ’em effective for longer. At the very top end, Animal Dominion can keep multiple PCs occupied. Oblivion can also work for this if you have Cults of the Blood Gods and fancy going a bit necromantic: nobody should mess with a Hecata on home turf if they know what’s good for them.
  • flatten the players’ dice pools. Animalism: Quell the Beast or Blood Sorcery: Extinguish Vitae take options and outcomes away from players and make them feel powerless in a given situation. In social conflicts, Dominate: Dementation chips away at available Willpower and that has a huge knock-on effect in terms of player resources. At least, it does if yours are as reroll-happy as the Wild Roses were. Be careful with this one, as players who feel deprived of agency are not happy players. I think you can get away with this once or twice in a story as a big flex, and the SPC who did it will be resented for ever (alas, Baron Kilkennie, I really hoped you’d be their friend).

Why Do It Like This At All?

It is certainly possible to get by without ever setting proper stats for your SPCs, in an “only players roll” style: just use the table on the ST Screen to set appropriate difficulties for all their rolls based on the significance of the challenge they’re up against, with the occasional “you’re outmatched, but each success will ‘save’ a level of damage” really scary roll.

However, I like to build my SPCs in more depth. This gives me more of an idea of who they are as people, and it also reassures me that I’m engaging my players within the same rules that they use to interact with my world. It feels more fair. Not every group is so far up the trust tree that we can abandon the dice altogether and play mother-may-I for over a hundred Sunday evenings. If that lightning hasn’t struck again, I think it’s important to operate within a shared set of rules, and apply those rules to my gameplay as well.

I hope all this has been of some use to you. If it has, let me know in the comments. If there’s something else you want to ask about V5, hit me up there too: I may well have some backed-up Vampire thoughts after a year of finally running the current edition.

[Game Dev] Notes toward Untitled Ghost Game

I keep thinking about a hypothetical new Wraith edition that goes back to a bedrock of ghost stories, i.e. stories about ghosts haunting people, and burns down “the lore”, or rather leaves it burned down as it was when the product line was cancelled. There was a huge explosion, the afterlife collapsed, everyone got kicked back into the barrier between life and death, and it’s presumably EXTREMELY dangerous to go anywhere else. That’s cool. Wraith doesn’t have to rebuild the old edifices. It has potential to move forward and become a post-mortem post-apocalypse: a storytelling game of survival and psychological horror.

The idea met with hostility from the Wraith people with whomst I discussed it, but I think it has legs and I want it to exist even if W:tO comes not in that form. (It probably won’t, because the White Wolf brand’s profitability rests on appealing to a fanbase which cannot allow anything to be thrown out, so we’re likely to get a soft reboot, like with the Week of Nightmares: details obscured, impact and “canonicity” maintained.)

Mechanically, I know V5’s Hunger mechanic making dice pools bigger or smaller and more or less dangerous in certain circumstances has really stuck with me as a system for horror play, but they need a twist away from how V5 uses them, because ghosts, surprisingly, aren’t vampires.

Ghosts are a located phenomenon: there’s never just a random ghost, there’s a haunted house or family or video tape. So, in this context of survival horror, ghosts need to be encouraged to be near people, places and things that make them more powerful, more able to resist that which threatens them. Wraith lands the concept with Fetters, but as with everything about Wraith it’s overwritten and blended in with a lot of other baggage from the V:tM engine it’s built on. There’s so much else there that the strength and clarity of the concept is lost.

Enter Walker, Twitter’s @ProfessorJust. I paraphrase their contributions thus:

The real question with any engine that maintains the conceit the players are the ghostly protagonists is: how does that narrative resemble a ghost story?

The best ghost stories don’t bring us closer to the nature of a ghost, as adversary or as agent. They are about the feeling of being haunted. So Wraith defines being a ghost as being haunted all the time. If you want to centre the ghost, you end up, I suspect, with the vengeful or protective dead, because that’s the actionable ghost, right? But that’s worlds away from Haunting of Hill House stuff.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing as long as it’s explicit.

V:tM isn’t Dracula, for all that it namechecks him straight from the get-go. Bloodspell isn’t quite La Morte Amoureuse, even though Clarimonde crops up in the Extended Edition, because Clarimonde is a rescued antagonist, a showing of how the script’s been flipped.

Likewise, Untitled Ghost Game isn’t gonna be The Woman In Black because that story isn’t about her, it’s about Mister Kipps discovering her. The literary touchstone, if there is one, is Fell — a piece of domestic haunting by Jenn Ashcroft which pushes the boundaries of ghost story into ghost POV.

I find myself thinking less and less in terms of literature when I’m working on WoD or post-WoD gameplay. The classics position the supernatural agent as antagonist, which is only playable if you’re really into RPGs as douchebag simulator and find victimising the living to be enjoyable play in its own right. Modern script-flippings generally focus on the state of being a supernatural entity — the horrid little shits in Lost Souls or the superpowered mopes of The Vampire Chronicles are deuteragonists at least, but they don’t do anything other than be what they are (because the stories are still about their impact on humanity). This is why Vampire always has to reach outside the vampire genre for its momentum — why it’s always vampire-as-gangster, vampire-as-conspiracy, vampire-as-medieval-warlord.

Wraith positions its protagonists as victims of ghostly oppression, which is fair enough, but reads as inert to me, it doesn’t achieve that momentum I was on about. This is why blowing up the underworld is a good decision, because movement away from something that’ll kill you. OR: I suppose the “goal” of Wraith is to transcend, to free your character from all this awful world-built bollocks by resolving their own living-person baggage, and all the Guilds and Legions and lore are sheer inertia, obstacles in the path of you doing that — but nerds being nerds, the world building becomes the point of the exercise, and character-focused “adventure design” takes a back seat.

Aside: Naked Metal, a very good blog which I wish I’d stumbled upon years ago, has a very good post about metaplots and why they need to die in a fire. Among the many true words spoken here is a quote from Dean Shomshak, former White Wolf staffer who seems to Get It.

Gods, I wanted to smack some of my fellow writers upside the head on some Vampire projects when they burbled on about the cool things they’d have Hardestadt do, or whoever. What were the PCs supposed to do?

Wraith has yet to present a clear, defined, satisfactory answer to that question. V5 does, but it’s buried midway through the book. Seriously, “what do we do in this game” is a sidebar about forty pages in. I’d go and look but I don’t want to stare that layout in the face when I’ve only had my breakfast half an hour ago. I need to do better than that. Front and centre, “this is what your characters are trying to achieve.”

Ghosts want to escape a fate worse than death, by punishing/protecting the living.

This is something I thought about when I did the Drives mechanic for Bloodspell. Wolfspell has a similar problem in that it presents a mechanic for being wolves, but there’s no thrust to it behind “solve an implied problem that somehow requires you to be a wolf, what am I, your dad?” and I wanted to get more oomph, more momentum in there. (I talk about “flow” and “momentum” a lot when I’m talking about rules, don’t I? That’ll need a post in its own right.)

Anyway, “What does your character want to do with forever?” was the big question in Bloodspell, the source of momentum in the play, and it’s relevant here too. I interpret post-Wraith, Untitled Ghost Game as it remains for now, through the “fate worse than death” angle, that staying out of not-Stygia and not-Oblivion is the goal.

This means I can’t just port Drives over. Drives are more character focused and about personal agenda, whereas the target genres here — psychological and survival horror — set the agenda and the player choice is located in tools and strategies to survive.

I may be able to hang the whole thing on pools to Punish and Protect, in classic “You have two stats” indie-game style. That works best as a pure game, but I’m not sure it has the right “stat your OC!” hook that actually makes people play games. People like to make Their Dude and that needs a little more detail than the bare minimum to hit the game’s concept. The answer may lie in types of ghostly activity – poltergeist, siren, possession. Which gives a WoD-style pool: add your “Objective” dice to your “Activity” dice. That’s your choosing tools and strategies of which you like the concept.

I definitely want the word “Haunt” on players’ lips a lot and I don’t think attaching it to “what you need to show on the dice” is the right way to go (people will just say “difficulty” or “target”). I also don’t want fussing about adding and subtracting from rolls or targets. One thing I’m very clear on is that players should be able to look at their dice and know how well they’ve done: none of that convoluted “I rolled a sixteen, plus this, minus that, did I remember all my modifiers, is that good enough mister dungeon master u_w_u?” toss on my watch.

So I think I need to introduce Haunt Dice too. You get to roll more dice if you’re somewhere you’re haunting. Not sure about swapping dice yet (I still think that’s cumbersome, and gets in the way of players learning their dice pools – because they have to factor in something different every time, there’s less room for familiarity to develop). If everything’s on a 1-5 scale that should keep the probability curve fairly sensible.

Time to sit on this for a while and see what boils away.

[Game Dev] On Wraith: the Oblivion and an Untitled Ghost Game

These thoughts are brought to you by a spirited attempt to play Wraith: the Oblivion last year. Not even run it – one of the Chrises who’s married into my old V:tM squad was kind enough to step up and give it the old college try, so I got to stat up the ghost of Bill Hall and Private Walker and sit on the other side of the screen for a change. Started well enough, but the sheer unrelenting misery of Stygia was not what any of us needed in times of pandemic and isolation, and we rapidly degenerated into what the other Chris insists on (accurately) calling Carry On Haunting. But it did leave me thinking: what would it take to make a Wraith game work for me?

A vampire is a dead person walking around being a predator, it eats blood so it can stay alive, that matters because eating blood is tricky in a society that frowns on that sort of behaviour and you have to do morally questionable things to stay alive, and that hooks you into the core “a beast I am lest a Beast I become” aspect. And almost every time you roll dice, the game reminds you of that by forcing in the Hunger dice and altering the consequences of the roll.

Wraith, as it currently exists, is an overdeveloped mess of guilds and legions and powers and conflicts and PvP gameplay without a core sense of what a session looks like, what the little characters we play do and why they do it and how the rules make sure it’s done. I’m sure everything it needs is in there but no edition of Wraith has successfully put that core loop explicitly front and centre; it always feels like a Vampire hack that hasn’t quite been thought through and pulled tight.

To me, a person who tried to learn Wraith by reading the books, there’s a huge amount of ink spilled on top down stuff – but apart from “join guild, get powers” it’s not immediately clear how this impacts at session level. Wraith seems more interested in its worldbuilding than in being played.

They got “what is a ghost” but didn’t follow it through. There isn’t the same almost… autonomic start-up process for a session there. Vampire, when in doubt, starts with feeding, because someone will be hungry, and feeding has consequences or is a platform for exposition, and “eat blood” is the central fact of vampire existence. I don’t see anything that concrete in Wraith – any such confident answer to “what shall we do tonight, Brain?” Something about “resist the Shadow” doesn’t click – it’s too passive, I think, or perhaps that “fuck with each other” gameplay loop doesn’t make for a functional table when the default for RPGs is that we play together. Maybe Spectres should actively wander through sessions more, make Oblivion a tactile threat that always needs to be worked around? Maybe Wraith should be run as, I don’t know, a storytelling game of survival and psychological horror?

I really like the guilds and if I had my druthers I’d lean more heavily on them as splats. What KIND of ghost you learn to be really matters and says a lot about your character and your goals in play, and it could be a choice. I feel the moral centre of Wraith is “you can choose to save yourself”, the work of resolving fetters and getting out of this awful existence should be the arc, and the act of choosing what kind of ghost you want to be feels like a good start to that.

I could see how a V5 hack might work, with dice swapping pools, but what to hook them off? Better pools near your Fetters, maybe – hammer home that sense of being tethered to a place, an object, a moment in time… Haunt Dice.

So yeah, I’m really hoping for Wraith 5 or whatever it gets called. But it has to be at least as iconoclastic as V5 is in terms of mechanics, and a lot more direct about how it plays and what makes it worth playing. In the meantime, I’m half tempted to knock up something that explores this same turf, because I very much doubt I’m going to get the Wraith I want. I won’t be able to use the cosmology, but the idea of an unstable and hostile underworld between Haunts might give me enough peril to hang the whole concept on. I don’t have a good name for this yet, so Untitled Ghost Game it is.